In an article about James Joyce in a recent New Yorker, Louis Menand summarizes in his own words Joyce’s objectives as an artist, especially in reference to Ulysses: “The writer begins with the arbitrary, the accidental, the insignificant…, transmutes them into an object that has intention, design, and significance…but that is purely imaginary. He looks into nullity, and finds there a lovely nothing.”
Everything seemed fairly accurate in that description until the word “lovely” brought me up short. The word actually comes from Joyce himself. Menand quotes him earlier in the essay as having written to his son in 1935 about his work: “My eyes are tired. For over half a century, they have gazed into nullity where they have found a lovely nothing.” But as any close reader would likely confirm, there is nothing lovely in Ulysses, even granting a temporary illusion of design and purpose. The life it portrays is shabby, sordid, even debased; at its best it is merely neutral or trivial or cumulative. There is nothing straightforwardly good or fine or beautiful, and neither does Menand adduce anything from the text to that effect when he adopts Joyce’s term as his own. Mired in quotidian detail and the needs of the body, the characters wander and drift from one thought or activity to another in a kind of Brownian motion, not masters of their lives but instruments of blind forces beyond their control. It is Joyce’s intention to show life shorn of anything that might suggest the heroic (a reversal of the Odyssey on which the book is modeled), and devoid of any transcendent meaning (it begins with a parody of the Mass)—a bare nominalist vision of separate parts that add up to no whole.
Menand himself cites Carl Jung’s astute and stringent judgment of the book: “What is so staggering about Ulysses is the fact that behind a thousand veils, nothing lies hidden; that it turns neither toward the mind nor toward the world, but, as cold as the moon looking on from cosmic space, allows the drama of growth, being, and decay to pursue its course.”
And Menand later articulates a description of the two main characters in a similar Darwinian vein: “From a certain point of view—it would be God’s point of view, except that, as there is no God in Joyce, it’s the artist’s—Bloom and Stephen…are just some of the stuff of the universe. That they have inner lives, lives filled with highly particular memories and sensations, means, cosmically, nothing. Seen from that enormous distance, they are just doing what their sort of stuff does—coming into consciousness, reproducing, dying.”
So what is “lovely” about that? To call it a “lovely nullity” implies that the life portrayed may have no meaning, focus, or direction, but that there is beauty in the living of it nevertheless. But Joyce wants, in his own words, to let the “reader know everything and know it in the baldest coldest way,” and finally to show Bloom and Stephen as “heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze.”
It sometimes happens that when writers and critics stare into nihilism, they try to find something there. Perhaps Joyce could not quite admit to his son that after a half century of consuming his substance over Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, he had come up empty. And perhaps Menand in that one sentence couldn’t quite bring himself to say, so baldly, so coldly, that when the writer looks into nullity, he finds, well, nothing. Period.